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Trae Young Won’t Break Out Of His Slump In College

Brett Deering - Getty Images

For now, the freshman’s best performances are behind him. But it’s not his fault.

Offensive struggles are to blame for Oklahoma’s 4-10 record in their last 14 contests, and true freshman phenom Trae Young is no exception.

Young’s slump, which would be considered great for a normal player, isn’t going to be solved this season. That’s because it’s not a slump. The flashy point guard hasn’t lost his touch - it’s been taken from him by opposing defenses. He has been figured out, through no fault of his own.

The Norman, Oklahoma native is still leading the nation in points per game (28.0) and assists per game (9.0). Clearly he’s doing something right, but his non-conference stats are noticeably different from his Big 12 numbers.

Young is currently shooting 33.7 percent from three in conference play, compared to his mark of over 40 percent in nonconference play. His turnovers tell the same story: he’s turning the ball over 6.5 times per game against Big 12 teams, an increase from his 3.9 per game out of conference.

So how and why was Young figured out? And, more importantly, what does this mean for the Sooners in March and Trae in the future?

The How

First, let’s take a look at his highlights against Northwestern on December 22. He dropped 31 points, went 8-of-13 from deep, and racked up 12 assists. It’s one of his most complete games this season and illustrates his early dominance.

On that first play, notice the passive Northwestern defense sitting back as Trae passes half court.

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The Wildcat defense gives him over 20 feet to work with, and he takes advantage with his speed, blowing by the defenders and sinking a little floater in the lane.

Just over a minute later, the Wildcats make the same mistake and leave him alone crossing midcourt. 

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Except this time, Trae doesn’t drive to the rim. Instead, he pulls up from Curry range and drains it.

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He didn’t just beat the Wildcats off the dribble from half court, though. He capitalized on any space he was given in offensive sets. The Sooners set high screens for Trae, and he had the option of taking the space to shoot or drive the lane.

Before he was figured out, teams didn’t realize they had to guard Young 10 feet behind the line. They learned the hard way. In the photo below, he has over five feet between him and his defender because of the high screen. That’s too much room to give a shooter like Trae.

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Once the Wildcats caught on to Trae’s affinity for launching ridiculous threes, it opened up opportunities for his teammates. He can beat you with his shooting, or he can draw your attention to get open looks for other players.

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There really was no good way to cover Young, but that changed quickly. Young said it himself in February: “I’m getting guarded like nobody else in the country is being guarded, scouted on like no one else in the country is.” And rightfully so. You’d have to be crazy to leave Young alone.

Now let’s look at Oklahoma’s first conference loss of the season at then-No. 6 West Virginia. The Mountaineers, known for their press defense, held Trae to five assists and 3-of-12 from three-point range. 

How they did it is no surprise: They ran their press and didn’t allow Young any space coming up the court. Right from the start, Jevon Carter, the reigning defensive player of the year, was stuck on Trae. It even went beyond Carter, and anyone who was on Trae gave up nothing past half court.

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The Mountaineers also fought over the Sooners’ high picks to double team Young, which prevented him from pulling up for a jumper behind the screen.

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Press Virginia also kept Young from making great passes. They harassed him all the way up the court (something he was not used to) and then trapped him with multiple defenders, forcing him to turn the ball over eight times, such as the one pictured below. He’s surrounded by three Mountaineers with nowhere to go.

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Ten days later at Kansas State, Young shot 8-of-21 from the field, including 2-of-10 from deep, and committed 12 turnovers. The Wildcats played him just like West Virginia did. They gave up no space all the way down the court, they fought over the Sooners’ high screens, and double teamed Young at times to completely disrupt his rhythm. 

Young’s concerning performance at K-State was not an isolated incident. Other teams following the same defensive schemes have stifled him down the stretch. During Oklahoma’s six-game skid in February, Young shot above 33 percent from the field just once. The one game he exceeded that mark, against West Virginia, he had just one assist.

In that same stretch, Young shot below 20 percent from three, including a 2-of-14 performance at Texas, 1-of-8 at Iowa State, and 0-of-9 at then-No. 7 Texas Tech. When Young’s ability to pull up was taken away along with his passing options, his shot selection got noticeably worse, sabotaging his three-point success.

Most recently, Young had 18 points and 5 assists and went 2-of-11 from three-point land against Baylor. However, he was extremely efficient getting into the lane and using his floater.

Maybe his outside shooting has declined from fatigue, or maybe he feels too much pressure as a true freshman to perform beyond his capabilities. Either way, he’s still finding ways to score while being guarded so tightly. Although his performances are disappointing compared to earlier in the season, he’s still an impressive player. Better judgment in shot selection could drastically improve his results. 

Unfortunately, his supporting cast doesn’t allow him to only take good shots. 

The Why

Trae Young is still putting up historic numbers, so I don’t mean to take away from his accomplishments. But why was he solved so quickly? 

Truthfully, Young is the only Oklahoma player who is capable of playing at a high level. Trae Young is Oklahoma, and once teams figured that out, it became easy to gameplan around stopping him.

Young’s importance is illustrated by some simple statistics for the Sooners this year. 

He takes 30 percent of the team’s shots and accounts for more than one out of every four shots the Sooners make. This translates to Young scoring nearly a third of the Sooners’ points. If you include Young’s 261 assists in the equation, he has scored or assisted on 57 percent of the Sooners’ made field goals this year. I’m no mathematician, but it sounds crazy that one player accounts for over half the offense of a five-person lineup.

The Sooners essentially run everything through their freshman point guard, and that’s why it is easy to stop him. But Young hasn’t been completely smothered. He still gets his 20-something points and his assists, it’s just much harder than it was in the beginning, and it won’t get any easier in the tournament.  

Oklahoma’s Tournament Chances

Oklahoma has proven they don’t have the pieces to make up for the fact that Young is constantly locked down. Unless teams inexplicably start guarding him differently, his performance will not improve in the tournament.

This does not mean, however, that Triple Trae doesn’t belong in the NBA. It means he’s been faced with the impossible task of leading an entire team to the biggest stage in college basketball all by himself.

Trae has to take all those shots. He has to run their offense single-handedly. Otherwise, they’d score less than 60 points per game. He has done so much with so little, and although his draft stock has dropped, he deserves the recognition he’s gotten thus far. If Young has proven anything this year, it’s that he can still score the basketball even when entire Division I programs focus all their energy on stopping him. 

Unfortunately, that won’t be enough for the Sooners to make a run in the NCAA tournament. Teams that go far have more than one capable player.

Sure, it’s sad that we didn’t get to see Young play on a team with other stars, and it’s even sadder that we’ve probably seen the best of Trae Young already. But I’m looking forward to seeing Trae play at the next level, where the three point line is even farther back, and the odds are that he’ll only have one man guarding him at a time.

Edited by Jeremy Losak.

When is the last time a Division I player finished the season with 30 points per game?
Created 3/2/18
  1. 1974
  2. 1988
  3. 2009
  4. 2017

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